During The Argument at the beginning of the play the audience is told that, although the play’s title is ‘Volpone’, the play is mostly centred on ‘his parasite’, Mosca, and the cross-plots he ‘weaves’ as he ‘assures’ and ‘deludes’ the other characters. Despite this, Volpone is not entirely submissive. There are several occasions where he is the stronger, commanding character, and throughout the play there are some elements of permanent authority, which cannot be overlooked.
As stated in ‘The Persons of the Comedy’, Volpone is a ‘Magnifico’, an entrepreneur who would be socially higher than his parasite, Mosca, and therefore better educated than him. This good education is seen in Act II Scene ii as Volpone speaks as the mountebank, Scoto of Mantua. Although it is unknown who contrived the plot, although it is assumed to be Mosca as he suggests the disguise, Volpone uses scientific language, such as ‘mal caduco’ and ‘hernia ventosa’, to convince the crowd to buy his oil, even calling in ‘Oglio del Scoto’. Even if Mosca had created the idea, he would have been unable to use such language to make the crowd believe Volpone was Scoto, and therefore he is reliant on Volpone’s knowledge to help carry out his plans. This social dominance on Volpone’s part is also seen immediately in Act I Scene i, as Jonson presents Volpone languishing in bed while Mosca does his bidding, waking Volpone for the day and opening the shrine at his behest to reveal the ‘saint’ that is his gold.
This wealth provides another area of dominance, although this is also a factor affecting class, as Mosca is dependent on Volpone’s wealth to support him as this provides him with a home and pay, so the typical master and servant positions are assumed. Mosca never forgets his place in society, and Volpone frequently orders him about, such as upon the arrival of Voltore at the end of Act I Scene ii when he asks Mosca to ‘fetch’ his ‘gown’,’ furs, and nightcap’. These are duties that Mosca has to perform, and when ordered to do something by Volpone he has to agree and execute the task without argument. These factors mean that Volpone is the overriding authority in this relationship, and Mosca dare not openly disagree with Volpone as he could lose everything.
Despite Volpone having a great deal of possible power and influence, he is often presented as the weaker of the two with a great deal of dependence on Mosca, thereby making Mosca the dominant partner. An example of this is seen in Act I Scene I, as Volpone asks Mosca “Why dost thou laugh so, man?” suggesting that he is insecure and seeks Mosca’s reassurance in case he is the subject of the laughter. This makes Mosca the leading member of the relationship, showing Volpone’s emotional dependence on his servant. He is also dependent on Mosca to carry out the ‘cunning purchase’ of his wealth, with Mosca having to make excuses for other clients visiting, such as when he tells Voltore to ‘put business’ in his face as he leaves, as he is an advocate, and then tells Corbaccio Volpone ‘was about his testament’ ‘for [Corbaccio’s] good’, giving him a positive reason for Voltore’s presence.
Through this Mosca also manages to increase the wealth accumulated through their enterprise, by playing the three clients off against each other. This is again seen in Act 1 Scene iv as Mosca tells Corbaccio of Voltore’s ‘piece of plate’ for Volpone ‘to be his heir’, leading him to proffer ‘a bag of bright chequins’, and later to proclaim Volpone his ‘sole heir’, thereby denying his ‘brave, and highly meriting’ son, Bonario. However, this does not entirely prove Mosca to be the stronger orchestrator of events or show Volpone to be weak, as Volpone has to act the dying man, and therefore cannot play a great role in manipulating the clients. This is shown in the way Mosca handles the subplot of Celia more skilfully than Volpone, and his greater level of control and forward thinking.
Mosca’s role in the play is more as a stage manager than a servant, and on many occasions he is shown to handle situations more adroitly than Volpone. One of the greatest ways Jonson shows this is in the plot to win Celia, something that Mosca himself introduces in Act 1 Scene v, enticing Volpone as he calls her ‘The blazing star of Italy’. In doing this, Mosca creates a new need for himself, making Volpone even more dependent on him as Mosca knows details regarding Celia, such as Corvino’s ‘guard, of ten spies thick, upon her’, while Volpone had not heard of her.
– With clients – creates entertainment and opportunities for Volpone to support his claims – ‘Signior Corvino!’
– Quick thinking – as seen with suggestion of disguise
– Setting up Scoto
– Volpone beaten but Mosca escapes his epilogue
– The Celia plot creates a new need for Mosca
It is debatable, however, that Mosca’s manipulative personality would make him the dominant character without Volpone’s weakness of character as, on several occasions, when Volpone is thinking for himself Mosca influences his thoughts for his own gain and takes control of the situation. Jonson shows this immediately in the play, as Volpone initially leads the conversation in Act 1 scene I, but Mosca soon takes control, flattering Volpone with claims of what he believes him to be. When Mosca states that ‘riches are…a greater good than wisdom’ Volpone agrees partway, but says he ‘glories more in the cunning purchase of…wealth than in the glad possession’, so it appears he is the most leading of the pair, but Mosca seizes this and praises Volpone’s indulgence, using such analogies as a merchant with ‘rich Candian wines’ who ‘drinks the lees of Lombard’s vinegar’. He praises Volpone again for his generosity, claiming that he ‘dare’ give from the ‘bright heap’ of his gold to Mosca, his ‘poor observer’ This is not only seen with Volpone, but Mosca also uses his covertly persuasive methods to influence Corvino, making him too believe he is in control.
– Volpone leads conversation and then Mosca takes control
– Unnecessary flattery leading to being given money
– Makes them think they’re in control
– Uses similar techniques on Corvino, despite already being shown to be an impossible task, and wins Celia for Volpone
Despite Mosca’s calculating nature and his clear skill in manipulating the clients and, to some extent, Volpone, he is dependent on Volpone for a home and his livelihood and therefore, on a larger scale, it is Volpone who is the dominant character, providing the situation and means for Mosca to carry out his deceptions. Socially, Mosca will always be the lesser of the two, but his furtive dominance is achieved through his personality, as seen in his control of Volpone and the clients. His lower social class also acts as a cunning guise, gulling others into believing his is incapable of influencing them for his gain due, particularly due to his having little or no formal education. It is therefore in personality that we see Mosca as the dominant partner, and it is this aspect of the characters that is overtly focused on in the play. Volpone would be incapable of his ‘cunning purchase of…wealth’ without Mosca, and Mosca, as a parasite, needs Volpone to support himself and live. Although unbalanced, there is an element of co-dominance and dependence in Volpone and Mosca’s relationship, with Mosca dependent on material goods, and Volpone dominant in this area, yet dependent on Mosca’s personality attributes, making Mosca the more dominant in their relationship.